Nature Photography In the Spirit of Full Disclosure

A very similar opinion piece to this was originally penned by Andrew Parkinson. With apologies to Andrew, I do not recall where it was originally published, but I agreed so strongly with the sentiment that I took a copy of the article at the time I read it; which I revised and updated with my own thoughts below in relation to the genre of Nature photography.

I have always considered myself a ‘full disclosure’ photographer; someone who puts honesty and integrity before ego, authenticity before falsehood and ethics before photographs. It is not a particularly complicated process, I just tell the truth about my photography and my photographs are an accurate depiction of Nature and what I experienced at the time. When a viewer stands in front of one of my photographs they can know in their heart that what they are looking at is an accurate depiction of Nature. This might sound somewhat lofty to some, but as a Nature photographer, I believe in my heart that I have a responsibility to accurately depict Nature and that my viewer should not be deceived. They have a right to the truth and to know (and expect) that the photograph they are viewing accurately depicts the truth of the moment.

Like all digital images, my RAW files require some optimisation prior to publication. Usually this optimisation involves little more than setting a white and black point, tweaking shadows and highlights, subtle white balance adjustment, some capture sharpening and perhaps a small contrast or saturation adjustment. Other than the above, nothing is added or taken away – save the odd dust spot (I do crop). There is absolutely no use of compositing in my photography. There is no HDR and no Focus Stacking. If you see a photograph of mine that looks like the depth of field was impossible – I did it with a tilt shift lens in camera. I will walk over and pick up the stick that is in the way of my photograph and remove it. I wont clone it out after the fact. I will reposition myself to to improve my background, but I wont drop a new background in during post production. I learned the craft of photography shooting 35mm chrome transparencies. If I was a third of a stop out in my exposure the slide went in the trash; so I learned very early on to get it right in camera; and to this day my mantra is quite simply to get it right in camera. If the light was no good or the wildlife did not co-operate then thats just part of the process and I will try again another day. I don’t feel the need to process and publish a photograph just because it was the best I could do on any given day. It is the process of being out in the field and trying to capture a great photograph that is important to me. The process is as important as the end result and I have to have had a great day out in the field even if I didn’t make a great photograph. Nature photography is after all about being out in Nature. It is certainly not about creating a work of fiction in the computer and peddling it to the masses as a Nature photograph. This process is not Nature photography. It is quite simply digital compositing.

My intention is always to maintain the integrity of both the original capture and importantly the original experience. The act of processing is simply a finishing touch on an authentic end product. This is what is known as ‘photography’.

However, it is fair to say that these somewhat prosaic values are not shared by all image makers. For some, it seems the original RAW file is nothing more than raw ingredients. It is part of the cake waiting to be baked, a mere brushstroke in the direction of the finished masterpiece. For some, there are no rules about what can or cannot be done. If their imagination can conceive it, then creating it seems to be the status quo. Never, it seems is this dubious approach more prevalent than in the peculiar and murky world of fine art photography. And never have I seen it so badly abused as the pages of social media. Fine art photography it seems has become a dumping ground of convenience for images that are excessively post produced and that have long since left the realm of reality. 

Of course, it goes without saying that it is none of my dam business what other photographers do (or do not do) with their photographs, but in our rapidly evolving world I often look on with more than bemused interest at many of the trends that ebb and flow in our photographic space. With the popularity of digital photography sky rocketing, we are increasingly bombarded with a plethora of images so unreal that they have long since left the realm of photography. For lack of a better term they have entered the loose arena of digital composited art. Overworked images with radioactive saturation and hyper-realistic contrast are produced en-mass and sold to the world as Nature images; which they most certainly are not. Quite honestly, nothing irks me more than when one of these images turns up somewhere in a high profile Nature competition and is subsequently gushed over by the seemingly oblivious judges who must clearly be ignorant to the reality of Nature.  Sometimes it really does feel like its the blind leading the blind out there…

One has to only scroll through the pages of social media to witness the level of absurdity that is applauded, the falsehood that goes unnoticed and the rather spurious invention that is praised. In a world largely ignorant to the duplicity of the desperate, my critical eye has grown tired of this nonsense. More so, now than ever before the natural world is dependant upon the honesty of photographers to produce an authentic rendition of what they saw. We need to inspire with reality, and not distract with deception. Oh, I can hear the naysayers now; ‘but its my artistic vision!’ What nonsense. If it was truly artistic vision and expression there would also be accompanying full disclosure and they’re rarely if ever is. Instead, the photographer sits quietly in the shadows; lapping up social media likes and comments through the disingenuous artefact.

I believe strongly that we should reward the photographer for their skill and ability to capture the photograph in the field. Not reward them for being a software expert in post production. A great photograph doesn’t need much post production! It is already a great photograph!

Of course it isn’t easy; It takes commitment, skill, dedication and passion to produce emotional and powerful Nature photographs in camera. Many photographers simply are not willing to make this commitment and seek instead a quick path to glory through the crucible of post production.

When it comes to wildlife photography, “Fine Art’ and “Social Media” it seems are most concerned only with the apex species (the gallery walls are no place for even a Pallas cat). The gallery wall images when viewed without receipt, often seem mundane and banal; badly lit, badly executed and totally lacking emotion. It might be a bear or it might be a lion; it might be wild or it might be captive; the audience will likely never know. The magic does not occur in the field (where it should) – rather this is where the RAW materials are mined. Instead the wizardry occurs on the screen of a computer, and the photographer is reduced to nothing more than a composer as the artifice is orchestrated. Multiple images can be merged, miraculous anomalies will happen with the light and the sky really is no limit. It is here that the final images rise like a phoenix from the embers of mediocrity. For me, these images are a lie. They are an unrealistic fantasy composed of exaggeration, invention, manipulation and deceit. They are sold to the public under the disingenuous guise of reality. And when someone dare call out the photographer for their falsehood they are cast down amidst cries of personal artistic expression. The truth is, the photographer was caught out and has run for refuge into that safe haven of ‘creative vision’.

When these undisclosed creations are used to market workshops they are at their most insidious. They’re intent to deceive is laid bare by those in the know. Workshop participants will never capture these images, despite their hopes and dreams. They were sold a lie. They were tricked and deceived and that is unacceptable to me and it should be unacceptable to them and to you.

I believe it is important to clarify that my thoughts and opinion relate solely to the genre of Nature photography. However, my comments also apply to landscape photography when it falls into the Nature category and they certainly apply to all wildlife Nature photography. Commercial photography, professional portraiture and other such genres work to a very different set of principles. Again, I want to credit Andrew Parkinson for so eloquently penning his original piece and thank him for inspiring me to pay homage to it with my own ideals.

With thanks to Chris Wahl for the photograph below from this years expedition to photograph Arctic Fox in the north-west of Iceland. This particular female fox is one I have been photographing since 2016. Over the last four years I have built trust with this fox to the point she will now come to within just a few feet of me,  lie down in the snow, curl up and go to sleep. She is now toward the end of her life and this is probably her last winter.  I will miss her dearly and pray I may see her again for one more season next year.

Arctic Fox 2020

6 thoughts on “Nature Photography In the Spirit of Full Disclosure

  1. Full disclosure never hurts, but isn’t the way the image is captured itself just as, if not more, important as the edits that are made in post? Are any your arctic fox images taken via attractants? I have to ask given that other tours appear to use fish and such in the same region.

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    1. Of course, the ethics of image capture are equally important; but that is an entirely different article. The article penned above is specific to post production (I thought that was pretty clear). If I get time in the future, I may well draft an article on the ethics of capturing images in the field. In relation to the Arctic fox images, I have no idea what other operators do or do not do in the field. In my case, the fox photographs are captured both in Svalbard (where it is illegal to feed any wild animal) and in Iceland. The majority of the photographs from Iceland are of foxes that live in and around one of the cabins in the Hornstrandir Nature reserve. These are foxes that are used to seeing humans (they have grown up around the cabin with frequent human contact) and will frequently come very close without attractants if you are patient. Any of the participants who have travelled with me will attest to the ethical photographic practices undertaken. Please note: We chose to publish your comment in this instance – however, due to the amount of spam we receive, we have a general policy not to publish comments from those users who do so from obscurity. If you wish to make comments in the future please provide your full name and not a partial name or alias. Thanks for your input.

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